Easing conditions help Australia fire crews but dangerous season to continue until March

A helicopter dumping water on a bushfire in the Grampians bushland in the south-eastern Australian state of Victoria, about 300km west of Melbourne on Jan 17, 2014. Easing conditions on Sunday helped Australian fire crews battling major wildfires tha
A helicopter dumping water on a bushfire in the Grampians bushland in the south-eastern Australian state of Victoria, about 300km west of Melbourne on Jan 17, 2014. Easing conditions on Sunday helped Australian fire crews battling major wildfires that destroyed 25 homes in the nation's south-east following a week-long heatwave, with warnings of a long and dangerous season ahead. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (AFP) - Easing conditions on Sunday helped Australian fire crews battling major wildfires that destroyed 25 homes in the nation's south-east following a week-long heatwave, with warnings of a long and dangerous season ahead.

Firefighters in South Australia and Victoria states said they had gained the upper hand over a series of blazes which started last week during a scorching heatwave that brought temperatures in excess of 40 degrees Celsius for several consecutive days.

Infernos in South Australia levelled 15 homes while Victoria's Country Fire Authority said a firestorm so intense that it created its own weather system in the Grampians holiday park west of Melbourne had destroyed 10 properties.

One woman died in the Grampians, although authorities said it appeared to be due to a medical condition and not fire-related.

An eleventh-hour wind change spared the town of Halls Gap, where more than 100 people had evacuated their homes as the fire-front approached, said Victoria fire commissioner Craig Lapsley.

"Halls Gap dodged a bullet," he said.

Mr Lapsley said crews had "done reasonably well" to limit property damage and casualties in what had been the worst conditions since the so-called Black Saturday fire disaster which killed 173 people in 2009.

"We've had big fires, 100,000 hectares burnt in a manner of basically two days," he said.

In South Australia there were still five major blazes going but cooler and less windy conditions helped containment efforts overnight.

Mr Lapsley said there was no room for complacency, with dangerous conditions forecast to continue until March.

"This is the start or the changing point in this summer," he said.

"We don't see any rain, we don't see the break in the weather and we certainly see warm conditions for the month of February."

In New South Wales, spared the worst of this week's heatwave, there were unconfirmed reports that some homes had been destroyed by fresh blazes in the state's south-west started by lightning early Sunday.

"The number of fires that we're trying to deal with is just going up alarmingly," said Rural Fire Service commissioner Rob Rogers.

More than 200 homes were destroyed and two lives lost in a NSW fire emergency west of Sydney in October - unseasonably early for wildfires, which are common in Australia's December to February summer months.

One week ago a fast-moving wildfire razed 56 homes on the outskirts of Perth, on Australia's west coast, under a sweltering heat system that spread across the continent to the south-east.

Experts say heatwaves are becoming longer and more frequent in Australia due to climate change.

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